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United's battle with Real to tell tale of two leagues
Everton at Old Trafford first up, but it's the Champions League clash that's the crunch
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Statistics say Manchester United are better than ever, and they have the opportunity to prove it on both the domestic and continental fronts this week with matches against Everton and Real Madrid. The Champions League tie against Real, in particular, will be a good guide to United's quality and to the relative strength of the English Premier League and Spain's Primera Liga.
First for United is the home game against Everton - one of only three teams to have defeated them in the Premier League this season. With United holding a nine-point lead, this is hardly a crunch game in the title race and Alex Ferguson may be tempted to rest one or two key players for the Champions League match.
Even if Ferguson puts out a full-strength side, there is an element of doubt about United at the odds. While they have been virtually unstoppable against the bulk of the division this season, United have only a 50 per cent win rate against top-six opposition and two of their three defeats have been against teams in that category (1-0 at Everton in their opening game and 3-2 at home to Tottenham just over a month later).
Everton's record against top-six teams is not much different, except they have lost only one out of five in that category (2-1 at home to Chelsea in December). Everton average 1.6 points per game against top-six teams, only just behind United's 1.67.
David Moyes' side also have a good recent record against United, with four defeats in the last 10 meetings. Everton have won only two out of 10, mainly because they are a low-scoring team and it is difficult to outscore United with that type of profile.
Their last visit to Old Trafford went against the grain, however, as Everton came back from 4-2 down to force a 4-4 result. Moyes has put together a greater attacking threat in the past year and that suggests Everton will not be so reliant on keeping a clean sheet.Even so, under 2.5 goals is the best bet, with United looking poor value as a fair price on them would be 1.8.
United are likely to regard the Champions League clash with Real Madrid as their most important match of the week. This is the acid test of their quality after blitzing through the first two-thirds of the season as Champions League group winners and with their highest-ever tally of Premier League points at this stage.
Real, by contrast, have had a difficult season and are lagging 16 points behind Barcelona in the Primera Liga. Their recent record in the Champions League is not inspiring either, yet they are still second favourites for this season's competition behind Barcelona. That reflects the commonly held view that Spain's domestic league is currently stronger than England's, which is open to question.
Since the start of the 2008-09 season, in Champions League matches between Spanish and English clubs, there have been only three defeats in 21 for England (the draw rate is high, at 57 per cent).
Barcelona are clearly the best team in Europe, but that does not mean Real Madrid are necessarily second-best just because they are the reigning Spanish champions. When Real met Manchester City at this season's group stage, they won 3-2 at home and drew 1-1 away but both games were on a knife edge (Real trailed 2-1 at home with three minutes to play).
United would say they are a better side than City this season, which suggests they can beat Real over two legs. Real are decent odds to sneak a narrow win in Wednesday's first leg, however.
The other Champions League bets to consider are underrated home sides Celtic and Shakhtar Donetsk on the handicap.
Arsenal are not in action in the Champions League until the following week, and in the meantime they can continue their quiet revival with a victory at Sunderland. The Gunners have lost only two of their last 14 games in all competitions (against top-three sides Manchester City and Chelsea) and have won eight. With Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud now settled, Arsenal could finish the season more strongly than has been their habit recently.
Stoke look a decent bet at home to Reading, whose recent wins cannot mask their deficiencies. Nine of Reading's 12 away trips have ended in defeat.
Two teams are worth considering at big prices, or at least on the handicap. Newcastle have a tough task at Tottenham but are showing better form, while QPR have lost only three out of 12 under Harry Redknapp and have a decent shot at Swansea, who have won just four out of 12 at home.
Stoke, Arsenal, Tranmere, Valencia, Juventus, Frankfurt, Mainz.
11pm unless stated: Tottenham Hotspur v Newcastle United (8.45pm); Chelsea v Wigan Athletic; Norwich City v Fulham; Stoke City v Reading; Sunderland v Arsenal; Swansea City v Queens Park Rangers; Southampton v Manchester City (1.30am Sun).
Aston Villa v West Ham United (9.30pm); Manchester United v Everton (midnight).
Liverpool v West Bromwich Albion (4am Tue)
1 Stoke home win Unlikely to let Reading off the hook as others have done
2 Arsenal away win Inform strikers can make the difference
3 Tranmere on handicap League One’s top team continue to be underrated
4 Valencia on handicap Five wins out of eight under new manager Ernesto Valverde
5 Frankfurt home win Six wins out of seven at home to teams outside the top five